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Lawmaker Wants All Child Deaths Reported

The Senate sponsor of Florida's sweeping new child-welfare law says she'll be back next year with a bill to expand its reporting requirements.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee, said the new law doesn’t go far enough in requiring all children's deaths to be reported.

The law (SB 1666), approved this spring by lawmakers, overhauled Florida’s troubled child-welfare system and went into effect July 1. Among its many provisions, the law requires the state Child Abuse Death Review Committee to "prepare an annual statistical report on the incidence and causes of death resulting from reported child abuse in the state during the prior calendar year."

However, the number of deaths "from reported child abuse" is just a fraction of the total number of child deaths, and critics say that means crimes are slipping through the cracks. 

"Even a car accident could be abuse and neglect, depending on the state of the driver," Sobel, D-Hollywood, said last week.

During 2012, 2,111 children under the age of 18 died in Florida, according to the Child Abuse Death Review Committee's 2013 annual report. Of those, 432 were reported to the state abuse hotline, which is housed at the Department of Children and Families. Of those, the department verified 122 deaths as being related to child abuse or neglect. 

Depending on DCF’s definitions for abuse and neglect, the hotline counselors screen cases in or out. 

"You see variations year to year in how many abuse deaths are reported, depending on the criteria used by the hotline," said Pam Graham, associate professor of social work at Florida State University. 

Sobel said the department is screening out too many cases that, with additional scrutiny, could be determined to be child-abuse deaths.

"There’s been too much of a cover-up in this state," she said. "The Department of Children and Families should be required to report what they find."

Her criticisms echo a Miami-Dade grand jury report in June that blasted DCF for its reporting of child deaths, noting, for instance, that the department in 2010 changed its definition of "neglect" in a way that made it apply to fewer children.

"The public does not have confidence in the accuracy of the number of child deaths reported," grand jurors concluded. "Reported reductions in the total number of deaths may only be a consequence of changing the definitions of abuse and neglect."

One of the grand jury recommendations was that the department should revert to its pre-2010 definition of neglect and eliminate other inconsistencies in its reporting. 

"Once those standards are prepared, we recommend that DCF conduct trainings for all DCF staff who are involved with verifying causes of death to insure that factually similar causes of neglect will be verified as neglect regardless of where they occur," the panel wrote. 

The training of those who classify the cases is crucial to whether or not they're reported, said Maj. Connie Shingledecker of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.

For instance, the two biggest causes of child deaths in Florida are drowning and what are called "co-sleeping" deaths, in which babies suffocate while sleeping with adults. Drowning and co-sleeping deaths are often accidental, but they can also be the result of impairment due to substance abuse by a parent --- and Shingledecker said not all law-enforcement agencies are reporting them that way.

"They haven’t been trained to recognize the death is a result of neglect, so they don’t call it in," she said. 

Another example, Shingledecker said, is a murder-suicide in which a man kills his wife and children. 

"Those oftentimes do not get called in to the hotline, because it’s a murder --- it’s not a child-abuse case," she said. "But you have no idea until you call it in and let them look at it what systems touch the lives of those families."

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